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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Friday 3 May 2013

Nature, Nurture and Why Social Learning is Hard

 - Prime Minister Stephen Harper
Human beings are born pathetic creatures.  Unlike most members of the animal kingdom, we can't walk, roll over, collect food, even latch to our mother's breasts without guidance, constant encouragement and continual effort.  Defense isn't even an option - human children are natural prey for a whole host of predators.  Despite these fundamental inadequacies, our species controls the fate of all others on the planet.
This is a question that's come to me as I watch my five month-old baby learn to roll over and help my five year-old son learn to read. 
The baby has no life experience of any sort - and as such, no opinion.  He's ready to learn how to function and willing to experiment with his body, to literally push himself into moving forward.  He gets frustrated, as all babies do, but that's where parents come in - our job is to provide basic needs like food and shelter, opportunity (through activities like tummy time which force babies to start lifting their head and start building the muscles they need to move independently) and a safe space for this developmental growth to happen. 
This isn't unusual practice - other primates and most mammalian species (like lion prides or elephant herds) practice the same trick of hands-on parenting.  As our kids are so helpless, the job of human parents tends to be a bit more involved.  Like other animal babies, though, human pups are born with a certain degree of hard-wired programming designed to help them survive in the wild.  This genetic programming includes the instinct to develop movement and talking skills as well as basic inclinations like a belief that might makes right and bad behaviour must be vigorously punished.
Think about that for a second.  Humans are hard-wired to recognize that power provides justification and determines right from wrong and that those who deviate from the rules of normative power structures deserve to be punished.  On the African savanna and through much of our evolutionary history, power used to just come in the form of strength; whoever was toughest got to call the shots. 
If you study hierarchical behaviour in lions or gorillas, there's a disturbingly familiar pattern; the alpha male (and it's always a male) is the strongest and lays down the law.  These alphas end up with the lion's share of resources and the best quality of mates - the entitlements of position.  Other males can and do challenge the alpha; if they succeed, they gain the status and entitlements of the old leader but if they fail, they are automatically spurned by the group for challenging the normative power structure.  The defeated, properly chastened and not wanting to be cast out will go into a period of extreme deferentialism - they walk around with their tail between their legs, so to speak.  For their part, the alpha will cling to power for as long as they can - until their strength leaves them.  Or, they go off and find their own pride to manage.
Go back to the idea of parents providing safe spaces for their kids and this sort of behaviour makes absolute sense.  If alpha-males had no respect for authority and saw no consequences to bad behaviour, there would be perpetual war between dominance-seeking males - hardly a safe environment to raise children in.  This is emphasized by the fact that a key part of dominance is the establishment of legacy; we want our offspring to carry on our genetic legacy, so have an inclination to kill the young of others.  Without also having an innate, shared sense of justice - it's wrong to kill the children of someone who is part of your tribe - no children would survive and our species would go extinct. 
Which brings me back to the Harper quote above.  Intentionally or not, Harper's approach to terrorism (and his political opponents) is purely evolutionary; bad behaviour is bad behaviour and must be punished, full stop.  Terrorism makes for unsafe spaces and therefore must be vigorously punished.  This is reinforced by Pierre Poilievre's position: "the root cause of terrorism is terrorists."  We have a hard-wired sense of what justice is and how it works; there's no need to commit sociology and understand anything beyond the basics.
Opposition Parties, to the Harper Government, are dangerous socialists and separatists, or threats to the economy, or are attempting to undermine their definition of our Canadian lineage.  In short, they are not part of the tribe.  As the only thing that matters is the well-being of the tribe (or the pride), you're either with them or against them.  If you're against them, then the ingrained rules around justice don't apply.
At the same time, Team Harper is trapped in the notion of might making right; they see themselves as the Alpha Dog, i.e. government - as such, they get to make the rules by which others need to follow.  Remember when John Baird told us his Party would go over the heads of Parliament and the Governor General - despite the fact that, in our Parliamentary System, both of those institutions have supremacy?  This is the younger male slapping at the alpha dog of the system, trying to undermine their authority so as to challenge them for dominance.  When Team Harper wasn't government, they were all for transparency, accountability and an end to arrogance - now that they're there they feel entitled to the entitlements of power.
Of course, this hard-wired programming was developed over millennium for the kind of lifestyle genetically-distinct humans led for tens of thousands of years - small groups trying to survive on harsh terrain.  Focused entirely on facing off immediate, perceivable threats to the rearing of successful offspring, nothing else mattered.  Our ancestors didn't care where they dumped their trash, because they were nomadic and didn't have to live with the consequences of detritus.  They gave no thought to the role of hygiene and cooking food to the maintenance of health - that was a notion beyond their grasp.  If you could go back and explain these complex processes and their long-term benefits, these ancestors would probably think you were stupidly committing sociology; what's the point of so much effort with no short-term pay off?
Our ancestors were quite happy to exploit the natural resources they had in front of them, maintain a strict, hierarchical social order and severely punish anyone who threatened their comfort zone.
Which is exactly how Team Harper is trying to govern Canada.
Complex social progress - the domestication of plants and animals, the development of more complex tools, physical and social infrastructure - didn't happen over night.  They were met with resistance, too; NIMBYism is hardly a modern phenomenon.  It's a genetic phenomenon.  We are designed for a basic level of socialisation, but everything above that basic level comes with a great deal of labour.
Which is where my five year-old comes in.  Much like the five month-old, my eldest is keen to learn and proactively seeks positive reinforcement from who he perceives as the alpha dog - his parents.  Son #1 is less suspicious of strangers (from outside the tribe) than the baby is, but he's had more socialization and has developed more sophisticated tools for establishing and managing interpersonal relationships.
Thing is, son #1 doesn't quite grasp the value of reading yet; he's not as driven to read as he is to, say, work on his running skills or his hitting-things-with-sticks skills.  The sitting still stuff, the theoretical stuff that reinforces social, not environmental skills don't entice him the same way survival skills do.  As he gets older, as all kids do, son #1 begins to feel around the margins, pushing his boundaries and challenging the established hierarchy in an effort to gain a position of dominance that lets him establish his own rules.  As a parent, my natural inclination is often the same as Stephen Harper's: "I'm in charge, kid, so I make the rules.  You're job is to do what you're told."
It's an instinct I resist.  Reinforcing his (and my) basic "might makes right" and "eye for an eye" genetic programming will not serve his best interests in the long run.  If my sons are to be sustainably successful in this world, they need to learn an additional set of skills - understanding what the rules are, who makes them and how both the rules and the maker can be manipulated for individual gain.  My sons will need to know how to assess consequence and behave in a way that helps produce the consequences they want.
Yes, it takes time to put one's toys away, but if you don't, they could get lost or broken, or the baby might stick something in his mouth and choke to death.  Yes, brushing your teeth takes time that could be used for other purposes, but if you don't, sugars build up on your teeth, rot holes into them and then you can't eat the food you like any more.   Even if reading doesn't feel important to you right now, it's an important skill to learn because it allows for understanding - and in our dense, complex society, might doesn't make right and a lack of comprehension will invariably hold you back.
Because we don't live on the plains of Africa any more and we don't survive in minimalist tribes.  When you try to bend the whole of society to the constraints of your genetic survival programming, you end up with North Korea or Nazi Germany - you've not secured continuity for your genetic legacy, you've signed it's long-term death warrant.
By stifling science, bullying Opposition groups and undermining Parliament, the current government is essentially raping democracy, demonstrating that they are in charge and to the victor go the spoils.  I use rape intentionally, because in a different context that is exactly what the rapists of rehtaeR Parsons were doing - demonstrating to the world how powerful they were and that they get what they want.  Terrorists do the same thing - they focus on strength as a tool of power and attempt to remind the world who's really boss.  The NRA is a variant on the exact same limbic programming - guns are power and a family's "safe space" is theirs to defend and use as they please; anyone who doesn't belong in that space is a threat to their social order and must be eliminated.
We don't need to learn anything new - we don't have the time to learn anything new.  There are rules that everyone needs to follow and those rules are set by the people in charge.  We have no need to adapt to situational changes (Jeremy, could you bring me my notes?)
That's what our biology tells us.  That's clearly not where the arc of history is taking us.  Because of our internal limitations, though, we keep learning these lessons the hard way.
The best skill, then, that alpha dogs can impart to their charges is the ability to think ahead.  It helps though, if they set the example.

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